Module 3: How to tackle of access to suitable equipment (so-called digital capital or poverty)

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Landing the concept

In the Kanji characters used in both Chinese and Japanese, the word ‘crisis’ is written with two symbols, the first meaning ‘danger’ and the second ‘opportunity.’

(Al Gore)

Never waste a crisis, it is an opportunity… The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically redefined what normal life can be, at home, at work, at school. For education in particular it meant that schools and universities discontinued traditional classroom instruction and switched to online learning. This disruption which is considered temporary by many as they expect life will return to what was considered normal before Covid-19, provides the necessary momentum to eventually reconsider and reconstruct teaching and learning models and to accelerate predicted and long due changes. Universities have been slow and even resistant in some cases to fully embrace the use of new technologies and to shift towards more online or hybrid teaching and learning. The pandemic forced them to change from one day to another, even when they were ill prepared for such shift. By now and after more than a year, the dust has settled and the HEIs are moving from emergency measures towards more sustainable and systemic solutions, supporting on- and off-campus teaching and learning by means of technology. By now, we should also start to ask ourselves how effective technology has been in reaching the students over the past months. 

Because during the transition, the other side of the coin started to show: not only did the institutions need to react fast and drastically, close the campus for onsite learning and teaching and enable, facilitate and support online ways of teaching and learning. Also all stakeholders were required to adapt in one way or the other. In this article Zac Woolfitt, Inholland University of Applied Sciences, The Netherlands describes the initial chaotic moments at the frontline of the transition. Academic staff managed to cope reasonably well with the new ways of teaching. Research by Marco Kalz indicated that while lecturers reported no issues with presentation-oriented formats online, they found scenarios related to group learning, discussion and practice or application of knowledge challenging, pointing towards future areas for professional development. This made him conclude that institutional investments in training and skill development may pay off more than comparable investments into institutional support structures. In this article Michael Marek refers to a quantitative study with a world-wide sample looking at the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for education, which shows that there are many lessons to be learnt about education from the pandemic, including about hardware and software access and functionality, as well as about student and teacher psychology under stress.

One important issue that is often neglected and which appeared as a conclusion from Michael Marek’s research, is the fact that even now,  not all students are well enough equipped to learn effectively online: on the question “How many of your students owned a computer and had home internet access when distance learning began?” a significant number of students still seemed to have connectivity problems or lack suitable hardware and software (M=4.1, SD=0.747). 

Anna McKie quotes the World Bank that “220 million university and post-18 students in 175 countries have had their studies significantly disrupted by the pandemic” and that these are by no means confined to the developing world: even students at the world’s leading universities encountered issues. These range from poor networking conditions, unsuitable learning conditions, for example having to share spaces or hardware resources with siblings, parents, housemates… According to a study by the UK’s National Union of Students, published in September 2020, 27% of UK students expressed their feeling that they did not have sufficient access to the required technology during lockdowns. In this article  According to this US-based survey in Summer 2020, 57% of college students said that having access to a stable, high-speed internet connection could be challenging if they were to continue their education online. As the main reason for this issue, experts see inequitable access to the internet and IT by class and income. In their poll published in September 2020, the Office for Students UK, showed that the variety in ability to access higher education from home risked that many students were being left behind by their “digital poverty”. 

What can be done? Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter says that “universities will have to redouble their efforts to support disadvantaged students”. Universities across the world apply a number of support mechanisms: 

  • grants or reduced tuition fees for low-income students (for example accounting for family income and social class in the process of higher education admission), 
  • concessional admission requirements to students whose parents were unemployed or with lower income, 
  • lower the competition for places at the HEI by provision of extra places for undergraduates as an alternative to them directly joining the labour market, or by making entry tests optional, 
  • provisions to buy laptops and other technology equipment for low-income students, 
  • permission to remain on campus to be able to access broadband connectivity or suitable study space, 
  • support to find suitable student jobs, to ensure some form of income, 
  • support to improve the student’s wellbeing, also because disadvantaged students often are confronted more than others with ethnic, racial, social and other forms of exclusion as well as with lesser advantaged conditions of employment and (mental) health, 
  • proactive and tailored tutoring support with close monitoring and early issue detection and remediation.

Providing places where students can work independently and have easy access to the Internet  both on and off campus are increasingly the norm. Such spaces are often open from early in the day till late throughout the week including the weekend. Take a look at how KU Leuven in Belgium organises its student learning centre called Agora.

Care should be taken not only to provide support to get disadvantaged students into higher education; but also to ensure they remain there and succeed. One important part of the student population that should not be overlooked are those students with special education needs which also may require support in order to participate in higher education in a qualitative and effective manner. This article describes a number of steps that can be taken to develop an accessible IT strategy in HE and this guide from JISC in the UK will help you to understand the difficulties faced by learners with varying disabilities and how a HEI can support them.

Take Action!

Try to answer the following questions: 

  • Does your HEI have a social programme to detect at an early stage, students with lesser opportunities? With study problems related to their social and/or financial status? Students with learning disabilities? How does your institution do this? Are all legal obligations in this respect being met? 
  • Check out whether your university offers equipment loans and what the conditions for such loans are, alternatively do you offer direct grants to students to buy their own equipment and if so, under what conditions.
  • Do you offer safe, accessible and pleasant working space on and off campus for students to use to work independently or in groups on assignments for example? 
  • Can students in your university avail of special student-friendly rates for internet access where they live? Free access on campus? Does this apply to students living in unofficial student accommodation or at home with their families for example?
  • What about software, is it easy for students in your university to access particular software they may need for different courses as well as accessing more general software at reduced rates? 

Write and share a blog post on your findings and recommendations.

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References